My friend and colleague Carolyn Ladd recently wrote lamenting the frequency at which B-to-B marketers name the C-level executive as a priority audience for their product. Justified as a legitimate decision-maker/influencer or not, it seems many marketers are trying to sell up, to capture C-level interest, perhaps even trigger the ultimate: a C-level mandate to buy the brand X widget.
Often overlooked in the dash to the C-suite are the underlying commonalities among this elite group of executives as human beings. Behind the power and charismatic public face, what might unite these extremely successful people beneath the surface?
Writing in Harvard Business Review, Diane L. Coutu interviews Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, a practicing psychoanalyst who has made the analysis of CEOs his life’s work. Kets de Vries notes the emotive, often irrational personality needs that often lie behind executive-level decision-making. Beneath the veneer, what we find is not always pretty. But it is in acknowledging the most human of vulnerabilities that we sometimes find the richest insights and creative inspiration.
While I encourage you to read the entire article at the link above, summarized below are—in my opinion—three particularly interesting windows into what may be considered stereotypical C-suite personalities and behaviors. It’s important to note that these are not universal traits, but rather Kets de Vries observations of common tendencies drawn from his work with a wide range of executive decision makers. These three key tendencies or motivations can be summarized in simple terms as the needs for control, esteem and balance.
Control: Obviously, the C-suite audience is populated with highly motivated people. According to Kets de Vries, this drive could spring “from childhood patterns and experiences that have carried over into adulthood.” However, don’t tell this to your typical CEO. He or she won’t want to hear it.
This stereotypical CEO wants to believe he or she is in total control. The reality, though, is that at any given moment, executives are juggling multiple responsibilities and often feel they have little control. This desire for control can lead to reluctance to delegate or even a tendency to micromanage. An extreme manifestation of the control drive can be found in the pursuit of large salaries and options that provide executives with the independence and security of so-called “f@#k you money.” This is one way – again, according to Kets de Vries – these CEOs can feel “more control over a world they often perceive as uncontrollable.”
Esteem: Some executives may be motivated by earlier blows to their self-esteem. Such decision-makers may have a desire for the affirmation and the recognition of others. In the extreme, this thinking can lead to behaviors such as the elevation of individuals who praise the leader and the elimination of those who do not. But this quality has its positives, too.
“It’s the engine that drives leadership,” Kets de Vries explains. “Assertiveness, self-confidence, tenacity and creativity just can’t exist without it.” Still, left unbalanced by honest self-reflection on the part of the leader and by individuals willing to engage with him/her in healthy, open debate, this quality can be damaging to an organization.
Balance: C-suite executives often log long work hours and some may sense a lack of balance in their personal lives. Most executives reach C-suite status around middle age. Again, Kets de Vries: “Midlife prompts a reappraisal of career identity; it raises concerns about burnout and loss of effectiveness. By the time a leader is a CEO, an existential crisis is often imminent. This can happen with anyone, but the probability is higher with CEOs and senior executives, because so many of them have been devoting their lives almost exclusively to work.”
A lack of balance – whether it’s real or perceived – can lead to insecurities about one’s personal life, guilt related to family and even depression. Feelings of being trapped and bored might be expressed in impulsive behaviors and activities that provide outlets for what is perceived as greater challenge and excitement both inside and outside of work.
What it All Means for Marketers
Some interesting nuggets can be drawn from this kind of work. Behavioral economists tell us economic decision-making is at least 70 percent emotional. It follows that the greatest campaigns have at their core a unique, often unspoken audience insight that engages the target audience at a human level. It’s often these kinds of raw, emotive, sometimes-irrational motivations that can help to inform the development of uniquely impactful communications efforts.
Keep in mind, these three C-level tendencies are by no means markers of the most successful leaders. Psychologically, Kets de Vries says that the signs of a successful leader include emotional intelligence, self-reflection, a balanced life and the ability to work through disappointments. And he concludes by saying, “(I hope) that we can accept that we need a little madness in our leaders, because I happen to believe that those who accept the madness in themselves may be the healthiest leaders of all.”
“All learning has an emotional base.”
Senior Vice President – Account Planning
Cross-posted at Ignite Something on the Forbes CMO Network